A year-old program funded by three government agencies and the Ford Foundation is showing remarkable success in its efforts to get unwed teen-age mothers back in school and generally assisting them in getting their lives together. A crucial -- and novel -- element of the program is that it pairs the teen-agers with older community women who volunteer to take the girls under their wings.
Project Redirection, as it is called, has been tested during the last year in Boston, Phoenix, New York, Detroit and Riverside, Calif. To be eligible, a girl has to be a member of a family that is either on welfare or eligible for it and under 17 years old. About 400 girls have been involved in it so far, about half of whom had dropped out of school, in some cases even before they became pregnant. "What Project Redirection has been able to do is get them back in school in a variety of programs," says Dr. Sydelle Brooks Levy, anthropologist with the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. (MDRC), which is overseeing the projects. Some of the teen-agers go on to take general equivalent degree courses, others go back to academic high schools and still others to remedial courses.
"If you have kids in your teens, your chances of obtaining your diploma are very bad," says Sheila Mandel of MDRC. According to a report by the corporation due to be released in August, one-half to two-thirds of the girls who drop out of high school city pregnancy as the cause. Nationally, only half of 220,000 teen-agers under 17 who become mothers each year ever finish high school. The average amount of education for a woman who has her first child at 15 is nine years. It is this problem of under-education and the consequent underemployment of teen-age mothers that Project Redirection is specifically targeted. Its accomplishments are impressive: 87 percent of those who are out of school are scheduled to participate in some kind of education, with that schedule being worked around the birth of their babies. In the Phoenix project, 64 of the 70 teen-agers who were out of school when they enrolled are now back in school. In the Harlem project, 49 percent of the girls were out of school when they enrolled and as of June only 19 percent were still out of school.
Levy tells the story of a teen-age girl in Phoenix who dropped out of school before her pregnancy and had no directio to her life. "She wasn't working, she wasn't in school, she didn't know where she was going. With the assistance of her community woman she is now in a General Equivalency Diploma program, and plans to take the exam at the end of the year and is talking quite actively about a secretarial job. knowing nothing about how to take care of a baby. Nutrition is another major area both for the teens themselves and for their babies. We've had teens who have come into the program putting Coca-Cola into babies' bottles." The program also improves the girls' employability by teaching them about resumes, job interviews and career possibilities, with emphasis on nontraditional jobs. One of the goals of the project is to delay subsequent pregnancies, and the girls are taught about family planning. "Very few of them had the baby because they wanted to have a baby," says Levy. "The standard comment is, 'I didn't think I could become pregnant.'"
Projects are run by established community-based organizations such as the YMCA in Harlem, the Urban League in Detroit and the Cardinal Cushing Center in Boston. These organizations put the girls in touch with the health and social services programs that are available to help them.
The idea of community women is modeled on a program operated by the Sisterhood of Black Single Mothers, a small project funded by the Ford Foundation in the Bedford-Stuyvesant community of New York for five years. The women in Project Redirection were recruited through advertising. Some are in their 20s, some in their 70s. Some were teen-age mothers themselves, some were not, and some are welfare recipients. They receive a stipend to cover their costs of such things as transportation. "They want to be able to help the teens," says Levy, "and I think for many of our teens it allows them to develop a solid relationship with an adult that is supportive and encouraging. The relationship between mothers and daughters can be difficult in the best of times."
Project Redirection is still too new for research to show just how effective it is. But with its emphasis on parenting skills, prenatal health care and nutrition, it has the potential to make a dent in the consistently high rate of infant mortality among babies born to poor, young mothers. With its emphasis on education and employability, it also has the potential to make a dent in the number of women whose decision to keep their babies rather than to abort or give their babies up for adoption destines them to a life of poverty or welfare. In 1975, according to an Urban Institute study, nearly $5 billion in Aid to Families with Dependent Children money went to women who gave birth while teen-agers. The cost per year for each girl in Project Redirection is $1,750.
That sounds like quite a bargain.